In Katerina Souvorova’s native Russia—following the model of many European countries, prospective opera singers studying at conservatories start out on a good footing. These conservatories are connected to opera houses, so young singers may transition smoothly from education to employment.
That’s not the case in the United States, where young singers may founder.
Souvorova, a pianist and opera and vocal coach, tries to bridge this educational and professional gap through Bel Cantanti (Beautiful Singers) Opera Company, which she founded in 2003 to provide performance opportunities to young opera singers.
Among Bel Cantanti’s productions thus far have been works by such opera giants as Donizetti, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Mozart. Because Souvorova also enjoys older music that has not been done in modern times, at least once a year, the company will put on a lesser-known work. Next on the schedule is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which will be performed twice in the District before moving on to two shows in Bethesda.
A hallmark of the work, Mozart’s last opera, is the Queen of the Night, considered one of opera’s most vocally challenging roles. Kelly Curtin, a lyric coloratura soprano who has sung with Bel Cantanti before, has been cast in the part for the Bethesda performances; the role is double-cast, with Lauren Randolph appearing in the D.C. shows. This is the third time Curtin is taking on the role.
Still, it’s daunting. ‘You have to do the part justice,” she said of the Queen. “You can’t roll out of bed and sing it. Since most musicians are perfectionists, it’s stressful to make sure those high Fs are sparkly.”
In addition to the high notes, the Queen’s arias are very fast moving, Curtin said, “and the singer is using a very special dramatic voice, not an everyday voice.”
Since moving to the metropolitan area in 2013 to join her boyfriend, opera singer Aurelio Dominguez, Curtin has performed opera, operetta and some musical theater. But she found herself drawn to Bel Cantanti. “I love the group, and Katerina is wonderful to work with,” she said. “Singers can get a little jaded, but with Katerina, it’s about refinding the joy.”
Briefly, “The Magic Flute” is set in ancient Egypt. A young prince, Tamino, falls in love with Pamina, daughter of the conniving Queen of the Night, sight unseen. He and Pamina must undergo certain trials to find each other. At the same time, Papageno, a bird catcher, fails the tests required to meet with his would-be lover, Papagena, but succeeds anyway through magic. The Queen is struck by a thunderbolt and dies.
Purists, be forewarned: Bel Cantanti’s production will be “The Magic Flute” with a difference.
Souvorova calls the production an “opera cameo” –that is, abridged. The changes are not as much musical as textual.
Because Souvorova has trouble relating to the theme of overcoming trials for find love, she tweaked it somewhat. “I love the music–it’s immortal–but have always felt the libretto was bookish and moralistic,” she said. “The theme for us is becoming an adult–becoming a fulfilled person by being true to oneself, without a mask,’ she said. “The Queen of the Night is not killed, as in the original libretto, but unmasked.”
Another novel element of the production is the inclusion of puppets. Perhaps because of the elements of magic in the opera, puppets have been featured in other productions and in Ingmar Bergman’s film version. But this is the first time Bel Cantanti is doing so, with Bunraku puppets, a form of Japanese traditional puppet theater that uses half-life-size figures.
Pulling the strings, so to speak, is Ksenya Litkvak, set designer of the production and a puppeteer, also Russian-born. A local art teacher, Litvak holds a doctorate in puppetry from the St. Petersburg State Arts Academy. “Puppetry has been my passion for many years,” she said. “But it’s very brave of Katerina to join in the experiment.”
The artistic director resisted Litvak’s idea of including puppets in the production until the set designer suggested life-sized one. Then Souvorova was “sold” on the idea. “The puppets will float in the air and grow 15 feet,” said Litvak, “The singers will sing, but also manipulate their own bodies. All the emotions the singers are singing about will have to go into the faces of the puppets.”
The puppets are not taking over; they’re limited to the roles of Queen of the Night and her three ladies–who will be represented by three heads on one body–even though singers provide their voices
Souvorova and her husband arrived in the U.S. in 1996 and ended up in the D.C. area when he landed a job at NIH. Looking for something to do–apart from learning English–Souvorova felt inspired to serve as an incentive for young opera singers to learn about the world of professional opera and to gain experience and build their resumes.
The company has “blossomed,” in Souvorova’s words, as have its young singers. In its 14 years, Bel Cantanti has presented 70 operas, an average of five or six every season. “Last year we did 10, which was crazy,” Souvorova said.
Even without reaching that level, the pace is hectic. During the two weeks of putting on “Eugene Onegin,” for example, Bel Cantanti’s singers and crews were already working on “The Magic Flute.”
The company employs a small-scale orchestra, both because of financial and space considerations. Bel Cantanti performs in churches, whose meeting rooms are not necessarily spacious.
“For ‘The Magic Flute,’ we will probably use only a string quartet and keyboard,” said Souvorova.
One limitation in the U.S. compared to Europe, she pointed out, is the absence of small opera houses. Bel Cantanti used to perform at Randolph Road Theatre, a space the company liked, but wasn’t suited for the requirements of opera. “But the intimate performance space of churches works for us,” she said. “The opera is set close to the audience members, making them almost part of the show.”
Bel Cantanti will perform “The Magic Flute,” fully staged, sung in German with English dialogue and projected supertitles, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, and Saturday, Nov. 18, in the Theatre of the Concord St. Andrew United Methodist Church, 5910 Goldsboro Road, Bethesda. Tickets–$40, $35 for seniors, $15 for students, $30 each for groups of 10 or more—are available at www.eventbrite.com and at the door. For information, call 240-230-7372 or visit www.belcantanti.com. Learn more about this performance on CultureSpotMC here.